Meet You at the Pub
Like its British counterparts, King Eider's in Damariscotta is the hub of the community.
In Britain, the local pub is a no- fuss, come-as-you-are institution where seeing familiar faces is as important as the food and drink. Usually located in charming old buildings and sporting cheeky names like the Mucky Duck and the Nag’s Head, British pubs are egalitarian watering holes where CEOs and construction workers lift their pints side by side. In rural Britain, they are often the center of small-town life.
King Eider’s Pub in Damariscotta has much in common with its relatives across the pond. For starters, there’s the central location: a tall, narrow, 1840s brick building just off Main Street in this midcoast river town, tucked in next to Maine’s original Reny’s department store. “We’re on the 50- yard line of Damariscotta,” says co-owner Todd Maurer. “I like to say it’s the corner of duck and Reny.” On a midsummer day, tables on the newly expanded patio in front of the pub and all three floors inside are full with a chatty mix of locals and visitors. The first floor is the bar, an appropriately dark, snug space with rows of ceramic beer mugs hanging from the ceiling and an impressive array of bourbons and single-malt scotches—Maurer estimates 150 in total. A few steps up is the tiny oyster bar, brightened by skylights in the steeply pitched roof, and on the third level is the cozy dining room, its walls painted a rich plum.
King Eider’s opened in 1996; Maurer and his wife, Sarah, bought the pub in 2003 together with Sarah’s sister and brother-in- law, Cynthia and Jed Weiss. A third sister, Melissa Organ, joined them eight years ago. The group also owns Stone Cove Catering and 1812 Farm, an events location down the road in Bristol. At King Eider’s, Todd Maurer handles the culinary side of the operation, while Jed Weiss is the front man; he’s “the welcoming factor of this pub,” says Maurer. Talking with the brothers-in-law, it is clear that they share a commitment to service at their restaurant and in the community. Their mission has been recognized by the Maine Restaurant Association, which named them Restaurateurs of the Year in April. “The service has to be at a level to allow for escapism; you walk through our door, you forget your problems,” says Maurer. Servers are not only knowledgeable but also exceptionally friendly and attentive, refilling water and iced tea glasses promptly and replacing napkins blown off outdoor tables by the breeze off the nearby river—small gestures that make a big difference, even in a casual restaurant. In the kitchen, it’s a group effort, with no traditional chef hierarchy. “I’ve got a team that can cook, but they can also taste, and that is unbelievably import- ant,” says Maurer.
King Eider’s menu includes standard pub food such as burgers and chicken wings but also offers more sophisticated fare, with steaks and plenty of local seafood in the mix. Damariscotta River oysters are a natural favorite—on the half shell, skillet roasted, or Rockefeller style. “We go through 35,000 of them a year,” says Maurer. Crab cakes are another popular dish. While I love the traditional lump crab version, King Eider’s are equally spe- cial, prepared with delicate, sweet Maine crabmeat and needing no adornment other than a squeeze of lemon. Cheese fans like me could make a meal of the honey-baked brie—not baked in pastry but served warm and melty in a crock with toasted bread and fruit. Come to think of it, I’d add their “rocket” salad to that meal. Recreated after a version the Maurers once tasted in the British Virgin Islands, the salad features peppery local greens, local goat cheese, and walnuts, lightly dressed with a sprightly lemon-basil-mint vinaigrette.
From the beginning, Maurer has sourced many of his ingredients from local farms and fishermen. “To paraphrase something I read years ago in the Wall Street Journal: ‘People don’t come to Maine and eat, they come to Maine to eat,’” he says. “I’m the guy who gets a phone call from the fisherman who just caught a 90- to 100-pound halibut—he has the tags for it, and I’m allowed to buy it—and it becomes our special along with 20 pounds of fresh peas that just came in from High Hopes Farm down the road.” Gesturing at a family tucking in to hearty sandwiches at a nearby table, Maurer calls my attention to a plate piled with crisp, skin-on french fries. “Those potatoes came from Fryeburg, Maine,” he says. I’m tempt- ed to ask for my own plate of fries, but then the server sets my barbecued salmon salad in front of me. A generous cut of sustainably harvested Maine salmon is draped over a mixed greens salad with fresh melon, apple, strawberries, pineapple, and grapes. The fish is coated with a fragrant dry rub and grilled for a savory char that yields to a perfect medium-rare inside; after a bite drizzled with the accompany- ing tomato vinaigrette I can see why it’s one of the pub’s most requested dishes (the barbecued salmon is also offered on a sandwich at lunch and as a dinner en- tree). Several years ago, Maurer thought he’d take it off the menu, which didn’t go over well. “They called, they emailed, and I finally said, ‘Put the thing back on.’ It will never, ever come off this menu as long as we own this place,” he says, shaking his head and smiling.
He and Weiss respond to the broader community with similar attentiveness. When a longtime employee went into the hospital for a hip replacement, they made sure she came home to a full fuel tank for heat and a kitchen stocked with groceries. Maurer is president of the Community Energy Fund of Lincoln County, which supplies heating assistance to people in need. Weiss runs a no-charge snowplow route. “Let’s say there’s a couple who comes here all the time, and the gentleman passes away—the wife doesn’t want to come in alone,” explains Maurer. “Jed goes to the house, brings her here to sup- per, then takes her back.” And then there’s the soup story. Last winter, realizing that many people in the community had come down with the flu, Maurer made a big pot of chicken soup and offered free quarts of it on the pub’s Facebook page. “All of a sudden we had cameras here, and people wanted to do interviews,” says Weiss.
Winter is locals’ season at what people in town simply refer to as “the pub.” In addition to the mug club, there are whiskey and wine clubs and events such as steak- house night and “Fried Fridays,” featur- ing seafood. On a blustery afternoon in March, I sat at the King Eider’s bar with my brother, who lives nearby, sampling bourbons I had never heard of and learn- ing about them from the well-versed bartenders. I had been on my way home to Yarmouth from Camden and called to see if he was free for a spontaneous visit. “Sure,” my brother said. “I’ll meet you at the pub.” I knew just what he meant.